A little more conversation, a little less action, please – no, that doesn’t come from a bad Elvis impersonator, but from Ursula von der Leyen and describes her new ‘softly, softly’ approach to food system transformation intended to replace the hard-hitting Farm to Fork strategy.
This year, the Commission chief did not disappoint the agri-food sector, giving ample space to farming and nutrition in her annual State of the Union speech.
Following rumours that the Commission might not present proposals for a Sustainable Food Systems Law and an animal welfare overhaul – two key elements of the Farm to Fork Strategy and among the last ones still outstanding – before next year’s EU elections, all the agri-food bubble eyes were on von der Leyen for any hints.
But in over one hour of speech, the two files or even the words ‘Farm to Fork’ were not mentioned once.
And while regarding animals, von der Leyen might be better known for ponies and wolves, her State of the Union speech this week came as a swan song for her sustainable food flagship, the Farm to Fork Strategy.
Indeed, the German Commission president put an emphasis on food supply and advanced the idea of a “strategic dialogue” on farming, which, in her vision, should help overcome polarisation and foster, well…, dialogue.
With just eight months to go until the end of von der Leyen’s term, the message was: Let’s take a step back from making policy and just talk instead.
And that this change of tack also comes just weeks after the main champion of the Green Deal, former Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, left Brussels for national politics.
Our take is that, at least in its approach, the over-ambitious Farm to Fork is basically over.
And make no mistake, we were fans of the Farm to Fork – as a concept.
The thing is, the Farm to Fork strategy approach was unprecedented, the first of its kind to marry all elements of the food chain – agricultural, ecological, nutritional – in an attempt to create a cohesive, overarching approach to food systems rather than just farm policy (aka, the Common Agricultural Policy).
And with 70% of soils across the bloc in an unhealthy state, the drastic decline of European biodiversity, and faced with an obesity epidemic, mounting scientific evidence points to the urgency of transforming food systems as a whole to become more sustainable and healthier.
The attempt for a unified policy approach to agriculture, nutrition and health, animal welfare, environment, and biodiversity is all the more remarkable if we remember that the CAP has always been known as a highly sectoral policy.
But despite all its pioneering qualities, the Farm to Fork Strategy has now hit a wall, and, ironically, von der Leyen herself did a good job of describing why in her speech.
“We need more dialogue and less polarisation,” she stressed.
The Farm to Fork has been a top-down strategy in which the Commission has set targets and objectives almost unilaterally as it was supposed to transpose on farming and food policy the ambition of a political manifesto, the European Green Deal.
This, in the end, increased the already existing polarisation in the agri-food sector and a switch toward a strategic dialogue hints at the need to work at the grassroots level in a more bottom-up approach.
The old proclamation “The king is dead, long live the king!” used to give a sense of continuity to subjects as the monarchy is still alive despite its helm having just passed away.
Likewise, the death of EU’s flagship food policy – at least as an approach – should not mean starting from scratch in this new strategic dialogue but rather maintaining its cutting-edge ambition in policymaking aiming at bringing together the whole supply chain, from farm to fork.
By Natasha Foote, Julia Dahm, and Gerardo Fortuna,